Hiking in Cleveland National Forest

Hiking in Cleveland National Forest

Hiking in Cleveland National Forest


Ever have one of those days where you start off with a destination in mind and end up somewhere completely different? As an explorer, those days really charge me up. How can I resist the lure of a new challenge, new terrain and new views? This past weekend, my wife Lindsey and I went hiking in Cleveland National Forest and ended up with a day just like that.

When we first set out to take our hike, we were planning to find Sill Hill Waterfall. If you look it up online you’ll see quotes on how to get there from one of the trail guide books but, what they don’t tell you, is that the landmarks seem to have changed from 2007 (when the book was last copyrighted) and 2015. A lot can change on the trail over the course of eight years, particularly hiking in Cleveland National Forest where trails are concentrated in places that have the tendency to catch on fire.

We started out at the Milk Ranch Fire Road as our trail head and hiked the mile or so up the hill with some pretty incredible scenery. I’m not sure exactly what the elevation was when we started but we probably picked only picked up a few hundred feet but the trees along the path were providing some cover from the hot sun. They didn’t cover too much, though – we followed a beautiful green hillside that was outlined by the remnants of what must have been a much larger forest before being impacted by fires. Throughout the course of the day we’d see these trees in the distance and much closer as we walked by charred remnants of tree trunks hollowed out by fire. The sight was both tragic and spectacular.

When we got to the crest of the hill, though, we were supposed to be watching for a barbed wire fence that didn’t seem to exist anymore so we started poking around for it a bit. After looking around for about twenty minutes we decided to move on and see what else this area had to offer – as it turned out, it was quite a bit.

We started following trail signs for Azalea Springs – after all, I figured that the best way to find a waterfall was to keep an eye out for water, right? So we set out to explore. My goal was always to find that 30′ waterfall but turned out the trail had other plans for me.

We ended up looping down into another forested area and all of a sudden started hearing water, which excited me. Then we got to the source of the sound…it ended up being a small creek running along the trail. We did, however, get to a small, flat space that would be perfect for setting up a backpacking tent and spending the night (by the way, one of the nice things about this area is that you can get overnight permits for it – you just have to find the place to set up camp for the night.

Eventually we came out along a beautiful open meadow and kept following the trail through and around the bends and saw more and more of what this section of hiking in Cleveland National Forest had to offer. I’ll tell you it really is an amazing place. In this forest alone, I’ve been hiking in the desert, in the mountains, in forests and every other environment available. For hikers and backpackers, I think it’s safe to say that it’s one of the best resources the San Diego region has to offer!

One piece of advice for those hiking out of the trail, though: If you’re following the trail signs – and you should, they’re incredibly well marked and lead to some great hiking – and you get to the sign that says “HWY 79” bear in mind that the trail comes to an end and spits you out onto the road about a half mile away from your car. Now a half mile may not seem like such a big deal after hiking eight miles but the roads are curvy and there are no shoulders so be careful.

All in all this is an amazing area and well worth the drive time to get out there and back. Go without a destination in mind and just explore. The majority of the trails are well defined so, even if you find yourself a little lost getting back shouldn’t be too difficult. And besides isn’t getting lost one of the best ways to keep exploring?

Ian Campbell Ian Campbell is the founder of Love the Backcountry and a long time lover of adventure travel. When not writing about the backcountry, he can typically be found hiking, backpacking and camping in the mountains and looking to lay his head beneath as many trees as he can find.